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Right-Wing Lobbyists Look to Oust WI Supreme Court Justice, Upend Gov Walker John Doe Investigation

Wisconsin Supreme Court chief justice Shirley Abrahamson  (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, M.P. King, Pool)

Wisconsin Supreme Court chief justice Shirley Abrahamson (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, M.P. King, Pool)

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The Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) lobby has made a major $600,000 ad buy in support of a constitutional amendment which would change the way the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court is selected.  For 126 years, the senior member of the State Supreme Court has been named the Chief Justice.  But the WMC’s ballot push would allow the majority to vote for chief justice, a move that both strips the position of its independent nature and casts an even more partisan shadow over judicial elections.

The timing of the WMC’s move could not be more transparent. They are at the center of the second ‘John Doe investigation’ that is looking into the actions of special interest groups and the Scott Walker administration in the leadup to the 2011 and 2012 recall elections.  If the referendum passes on April 7th, it would effectively strip Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson of her title, just in time for arguments in the investigation to begin April 17th.  The case will be heard by the State Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority that rose to power in part through political help from the WMC.  

Talk about a conflict of interest. Or don’t, if you’re the WMC.

The $600,000 ad buy was made by a referendum committee dubiously called “Vote Yes for Democracy,”  whose frontman is Republican operative and lobbyist Brandon Sholtz. Campaign filings obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy show zero grassroots support for the group, but major contributions by the WMC.  

While none of this comes as a shock to those familiar with the current state of Wisconsin politics, the fact that the State Supreme Court will decide the second John Doe Investigation in unprecedented secrecy may.  According to Mary Bottari, Deputy Director of the Center for Media and Democracy:

In the John Doe investigation which has gotten little attention outside the state, a bipartisan group of prosecutors allege that the Walker campaign illegally coordinated fundraising and expenditures with Wisconsin Club for Growth (WiCFG) and WMC during the 2011 and 2012 recall campaigns. While coordination between candidate campaign committees and independent groups is prohibited, WiCFG director R.J. Johnson was also Walker’s campaign manager when the state faced a series of nine recall races after the passage of the 2011 union-busting Act 10 legislation. Representatives of the Walker campaign or the dark money groups could face civil or criminal liability if prosecutors find that they conspired to evade campaign finance disclosure requirements and contribution limits. (The U.S. Department of Justice recently settled a criminal campaign coordination case in Virginia.) In his run for the White House, Walker continues to exhibit total disregard for campaign finance law, says the Campaign Legal Center in a complaint filed before the FEC this week.

Although arguments in the John Doe case were scheduled for April 17 and 20, in an effort to make sure no facts of the case that might be harmful to the defendants were leaked, the court took the unprecedented, decision to hear no oral arguments at all, either behind closed doors or in public. The court also denied the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s efforts to intervene in the case.
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson dissented vigorously.

“The court’s failure to provide further justification for its highly unusual decision to cancel oral argument is, in my view, alarming.”

The decision “may, unfortunately, signify the court’s intention to dispose of the John Doe cases as a whole in a similarly swift and secretive manner. I cannot join the court in concealing this important litigation from public view.”

Based on its own estimates, the WMC has spent $7.25 million getting the court’s conservative majority elected. The latest $600,000 ad push to ensure its main critic is stripped of power is chump change.  By comparison, their leading liberal counterpart, Greater Wisconsin Committee, spent $80,000 on a radio ad buy to oppose the referendum.  Attempts by state prosecutors to get two of the justices to recuse themselves have been ignored.   The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law submitted an amicus brief on behalf of legal ethicists urging conflicted Wisconsin Supreme Court justices to do the right thing:

“The U.S. Constitution requires judges to step aside from cases when there is a serious risk that campaign spending will impact their ability to faithfully apply the law to the facts before them.

The U.S. Constitution!? Wisconsin Republicans use that thing as a doormat.

If this referendum is passed it could mark the high point in the business interest power coup — from both in-state and out-of-state sources — that has rocked Wisconsin politics. The era of absolute power, determined by cold hard cash, is thriving in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin. Few states can claim to be as ideologically corrupt, and few majorities have ignored the will of the people as harshly.  Whether abuse of power is enshrined more deeply into the fabric of Wisconsin is up to voters on April 7th.


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